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A Study of Concepts.

1. The general framework

There is a familiar idea that beliefs and other propositional attitudes have contents which are distinct from the sentences which may be used to specify them, are evaluable as true or false, and are structured. The content of the belief that John is bald is, on this view, the thought or proposition that John is bald. Though here the content is specified by the sentence "John is bald" it could be specified by other sentences, for example, in French or German. Moreover, the content is true or false according as John is or is not bald and it is structured in that it has constituents which occur in combination and which may figure in other contents. Thus John may figure in the content John is happy and is bald may figure in the content Tom is bald.

Peacocke's concepts are constituents of contents. They may be associated with singular expressions and logical expressions (like "if ... then ...") as well as with predicates. Though concepts conceived in this way are not the same as Frege's, Peacocke's theoretical framework is Fregean in important respects. First, it individuates concepts by reference to considerations of informativeness. "Concepts C and D are distinct if and only if there are two complete propositional contents that differ at most in that one contains C substituted in one or more places for D, and one of which is potentially informative while the other is not" (p. 2). Thus concepts are placed at the level of Frege's senses. Secondly, it acknowledges a distinction between content and semantic value which is akin to that between Frege's sense and reference. Which truth value a content has depends on the semantic value of its conceptual ingredients. The semantic value for and might be that truth function which makes the classical elimination and introduction rules for and truth-preserving for all assignments of conjuncts. The semantic value of a predicative concept might be the extension of the concept. The relation between concepts and semantic value parallels that between Fregean sense and reference. The concept, perhaps together with the world, determines its semantic value.

Peacocke interweaves these Fregean considerations with two important ideas derived from the work of Michael Dummett but traceable, at least in inspiration, to Wittgenstein's remarks on meaning and use. With all due trepidation I shall call them the Wittgensteinian considerations. They are (i) that a theory of meaning is a theory of understanding, and (ii) that to understand an expression is to know how to use it and so consists in an ability or complex of abilities. (i) and (ii) are about the understanding of linguistic expressions but in Peacocke's theory they are in effect recapitulated at the level of content. Where concepts are concerned (i) becomes the claim that a theory of concepts is a theory, for particular concepts, of what it is to possess them. (ii) becomes the claim that possessing a concept C consists in a complex of abilities which the subject exercises in the formation and adjustment of propositional attitudes with contents which contain C. These are the ideas behind what Peacocke calls the Principle of Dependence: "There can be nothing more to the nature of a concept than is determined by a correct account of the capacity of a thinker who has mastered the concept to have propositional attitudes to contents containing that concept" (p. 5).

Peacocke's aim in this highly original book is to develop a theory of concepts which respects both the Fregean and Wittgensteinian considerations. Given the Principle of Dependence an illuminating account of particular concepts must spell out their possession conditions. Furthermore, the possession conditions should reflect the actual belief-forming and belief-adjusting practices of those who possess the relevant concepts and be such that they, perhaps together with the world, fix the relevant semantic values. An account for a given concept of how its semantic value is thus fixed is what Peacocke calls a determination theory for the concept. An adequate determination theory for a concept C would secure the result that possessing C is knowing what it is for something to be its semantic value.

The general framework is applied to a number of issues which are right at the heart of contemporary philosophy of mind. There are detailed and penetrating discussions of the structure of contents, perceptual concepts, the role of reference to concepts in descriptions of the empirical world, normativity within a naturalistic worldview, the concept of belief, subrational psychological explanations of concept possession, and how to account for what it is for a thinker to judge one content rather than another without being verificationist.

Philosophers who are sceptical about whether clear theoretical sense can be made of the very idea of contents for individual beliefs and sentences will find much in this book hard to take. My own view is that it is high time the grounds for such scepticism were challenged more boldly than hitherto. While Peacocke would presumably agree, it is not his aim in this book to mount such a challenge. The aim is rather to sketch a broad theoretical framework and show how such a framework might be pressed into useful service in philosophy and cognitive psychology. At the very least, the project shows us the form of a very interesting approach to the topic of concepts and their possession. What I shall have to say about possession conditions in [sections]2 below could be seen as a development of the project rather than as an objection to it. The problems concerning normativity which I explore later seem to me to be more fundamental. I am strongly inclined to think, however, that any adequate philosophy of mind would have to reckon with concepts conceived as in the Principle of Dependence and against the background of the Fregean and Wittgensteinian considerations. Any difficulties there might be in the framework should not make us lose sight of the fact that the subject matter of the book--concepts and their possession--cries out for detailed investigation and has not so far received a treatment of comparable scope and depth.

2. Possession conditions

Peacocke's initial illustrative examples concern conjunction and red. For conjunction the suggested condition is as follows (p. 6):

Conjunction is that concept C to possess which a thinker must find tran-

sitions that are instances of the following forms primitively compelling,

and must do so because they are of these forms:


q p C q p C q

p C q p q The force of the demand that the relevant transitions be found primitively compelling is firstly that they are compelling on their own account and, secondly, that the subject need not take the transitions to be answerable to anything else. I shall look more closely at this below. The suggested conditions for red make reference to primed properties. A visual experience has the property red' if, roughly speaking, it has that property which in normal circumstances is produced when observing red things.(1) Using this notion red is said to be that concept C to possess which a thinker A must meet the following conditions (p. 7):

1. A must be disposed to believe a content that consists of a singular perceptual-demonstrative mode of presentation m in predicational combination with C when the perceptual experience that makes m available presents its object in a red' region of the subject's visual field [in appropriate conditions!. A must also be disposed to form the belief for the reason that the object is so presented.

2. A must be disposed to believe a content consisting of any singular mode presentation k not meeting all the conditions on m in (1) when he takes its object to have the primary quality ground (if any) of the disposition of objects to cause experiences of the sort mentioned in (1).

For Peacocke an important constraint on acceptable possession conditions for a concept F is that while the conditions may make use of F they must not do so within the scope of descriptions specifying the thinker's psychological attitudes. The rationale for the requirement is that "[a]ny ineliminable use of an expression for the concept F inside the scope of a psychological attitude context will just take for granted what we wanted to explain, possession of the concept" (p. 9). Thus the first of the two conditions for red implicitly employs red since red' regions of the visual field are regions having that property usually produced by red things. But the description of the subject's belief-content does not use red. A similar point holds for all possession conditions on Peacocke's account. All such conditions take the A(C) form. They say that the concept F is that unique concept C to possess which a thinker must meet condition A(C). While the condition makes reference to contents containing F, and these contents are ones to which the thinker has attitudes, there is no reference to F as F within the scope of the contents.

Peacocke's discussion of both of the examples given above is fairly brisk. The account of conjunction raises three questions which are not explored in any detail. (1) What are transitions? (2) What is it to find a transition compelling? (3) What is it to find it compelling because it is of the relevant form? Two different approaches to these questions may be distinguished. On the first a transition involves the (possibly unreflective) formation of a belief on the basis of another belief or beliefs. For example, on hearing the crunching sound of footsteps on the gravel path you form the belief that someone is approaching your front door and because of that and certain background beliefs you form the further belief that someone is about to ring your door bell, or knock, or put something in the letter box. The transition here is literally a move to the formation of a belief from the acquisition of a prior belief combined with background beliefs. I shall call this the belief-formation approach. On this approach (2) could be answered by saying that to find transitions of a certain form compelling is just to be disposed to make transitions of that form. How (3) should be answered on the approach is not clear. It is not plausible to require that the subject be aware of the general form of the inferences in question. For that reason, and others, it is not plausible to suppose that the thought that such a move has the form in question is implicated in the subject's making the move. It may, however, be possible to spell out a complex relation between the subject and the form which would give substance to the idea that the subject makes the move because of the form. (Cf. p. 135.)

A couple of problems with this approach deserve attention. The first arises from the fact that it is not true in general that those who grasp conjunction are so disposed that whenever they accept p and accept q they will then move to the acceptance of p and q. That way would lead to an infinity of beliefs. Perhaps it is true that those who grasp conjunction are disposed in suitable circumstances to make such moves. However, spelling out which circumstances are suitable would not be a trivial matter. A further problem for this approach when applied to the inference from a conjunction to either of its conjuncts is that it seems odd to think of someone as making a genuine transition from coming to accept a conjunction to coming to accept either of the conjuncts. For it seems hardly conceivable that one could accept the conjunction unless in accepting it one accepted each of its conjuncts. It's a different matter in making a move in a language game. One might venture to assert a conjunction yet make no move to the assertion of either of its conjuncts.

The second approach conceives of transitions abstractly. Transitions taken in this way stand to trnasitions conceived in psychological terms (i.e. moves a thinker does or might make) as inferences conceived abstractly as sequences of premisses and a conclusion stand to inferences conceived in psychological terms. Indeed, inferences conceived abstractly would be a sub-class of transitions conceived abstractly. To find a transition in this sense primitively compelling might be a matter of its striking one as obviously legitimate. I shall call this the quasiperceptual approach since it involves its seeming to one that transitions of a certain form are legitimate. As with the belief-formation approach it is unclear what it is to find a transition compelling because it is of a certain form, but here too it may be possible to spell out an appropriate relation between the subject and the form which would serve to explicate the matter.

Peacocke is not explicit on which if either of these approaches to and he favours. The belief-formation approach is in the spirit of the treatment of red set out above in so far as it deals with belief-forming dispositions.(2) Though Peacocke does not use the term "transition" in the possession conditions for red it is natural to think of the dispositions referred to in the conditions as dispositions to make a transition from one state or combination of states to another. On the other hand, the quasi-perceptual approach is more in line with the treatment of the logical constants in Peacocke's British Academy Lecture (1987) which is clearly a precursor of the work now under consideration. In that lecture, finding instances of the introduction and elimination rules primitively compelling is conceived as a matter of finding them primitively obvious, and it seems clear that this in turn is conceived as judging that the conclusions follow from the premisses.

It is arguable that a plausible account of conjunction should incorporate the key features of both the quasi-perceptual approach and the belief-formation approach. Surely we exercise our conceptual abilities in forming and adjusting beliefs. But it is also plausible that if we grasp conjunction we must be able to appreciate that instances of conjunction-elimination and conjunction-introduction are legitimate. That is to say we must have some notion of what it is for a conclusion to follow from premisses and must be able to apply that notion to instances of these "rules". This point flows from a more general one. We deploy our concepts not just in forming and adjusting our own beliefs but in ascribing beliefs to others and evaluating beliefs generally. Such ascriptions and evaluations are made against the background of assumptions about the conditions under which it would be reasonable to acquire or sustain or abandon the beliefs in question. In the case of beliefs with contents containing and we are guided by our appreciation of the legitimacy of instances of the conjunction and elimination rules. Now it might be suggested that it is not essential to possession of a concept that one be able to deploy it in ascription and evaluation. Suppose that were so, then our ability to deploy a concept in ascription and evaluation would need to be explicable in terms of abilities which are essential for possession. Either these abilities will incorporate the quasi-perceptual capacity, in which case the main point is granted, or these abilities will not incorporate the quasi-perceptual capacity, in which case it will be difficult to see how the abilities which are incorporated suffice to account for ascription and evaluation.

Suppose it is granted that so far as and is concerned possession incorporates the quasi-perceptual capacity. I am inclined to think that something similar holds for red. For a person who possesses the concept red which we actually deploy is able to make first- and third-person evaluations of the reasonableness of perceptually based beliefs as to the presence then and there of red things. Since such evaluations take into account the perceptual experience of the relevant subject the ability to make them must rely on a grasp of the justificatory relevance of such experiences to the beliefs based on them. This does not imply that subjects consider their experiences when forming a belief on their basis, but then no more do subjects consider the contents of beliefs on the basis of which they unreflectively form another belief.

3. Normativity

Beliefs may be correct or incorrect in two different senses. (i) They may be either true or false according as their contents are true or false. The dimension of correctness here could be called representational correctness. (ii) They may be justified or not according as the reasons for holding them are good or not. The dimension of correctness here could be called justificatory correctness. It is obvious that whether a content is representationally correct depends on its conceptual constituents. So any concept could be said to have a normative characteristic insofar as it has a characteristic on which the truth value of contents in which it figures depends. Moreover, it is plausible that there are reasons for believing a content true which are good reasons in virtue of characteristics of the concepts contained in the content. Such characteristics are also normative in that they are determinants of the justificatory correctness of beliefs which have contents containing the concepts. The point is not that all concepts are normative in the way that just and brave are normative. It is simply that all concepts, whether normative or not, have normative characteristics in so far they bear on the representational or justificatory correctness of the relevant beliefs.

Peacocke addresses two fundamental questions about normativity. (a) How do the possession conditions for a concept and the associated determination theory illuminate the normative status of certain judgemental and inferential practices? (b) How can the normative characteristics of concepts be reconciled with a naturalistic worldview?

If I understand it aright, Peacocke's answer to (a) is something like this: Consider the practice whereby we infer, say, A and B from A and B. If this practice has normative status it must be such that given appropriate input beliefs it leads to justificatorily correct beliefs. But it will do that only if by and large from appropriate input beliefs it yields true beliefs. The practice meets this condition because the relevant pattern of inference is truth-preserving. It is truth-preserving since, as the relevant determination theory makes clear, given that the semantic value for and is the truth function it is, the inference rules figuring in the possession condition for and are truth-preserving. The upshot is that the determination theory for a concept "will validate as correct the judgemental and inferential practices mentioned in the possession condition" (p. 139).

So far as (b) is concerned the focus of Peacocke's discussion is on how the normative characteristics of concepts are determined by naturalistic facts, these being facts which do not involve any normative properties. The crux of the reconciliationist project is the claim that possession conditions are non-normative. (Strictly speaking this holds only for non-normative concepts. I ignore this in what follows, confining myself to non-normative concepts.) Reconciliation is then effected by showing, along the lines set out above, how normative status is conferred upon judgemental and inferential practices bound up with the possession of concepts. This project raises a number of questions including the following: (1) Could non-normative conditions tell us what it is to possess a concept? (2) Are Peacockian possession conditions truly non-normative?

To count as possessing a concept a person must know how to apply it correctly. A tempting response to (1), echoing Kripke's discussion of dispositional accounts of meaning, is that since the claim that someone knows how to employ a concept correctly is a normative claim it cannot be sufficient for possessing a concept that one satisfies a Peacockian possession condition, assuming such conditions to be non-normative. It may be the case that a thinker who knows how to employ a concept correctly satisfies a Peacockian possession condition, but if possessing a concept is a normative matter, while the possession condition is not, it cannot be the case that satisfying such a condition counts as possessing the concept.(3)

The problem can be made vivid with the help of a famous example due to Tyler Burge (1979). Suppose that there is person who incorrectly applies the term "arthritis" to painful conditions of the thigh as well as to painful conditions of the joints, though otherwise his use of the term is in line with correct usage. Imagine now that in a counterfactual situation there is a person who applies the term just as the first person does though in this situation it is not incorrect to apply it to painful conditions of the thighs, since it may be correctly applied to this and various other rheumatoid complaints and not just to inflammation of the joints. Despite the fact that they are alike in their dispositions to use the term "arthritis" there is a strong inclination to suppose that while the first subject counts as deploying the concept of arthritis albeit on the basis of an inadequate grasp of it, the subject in the counterfactual situation does not. Burge was particularly concerned to emphasise the point that a subject who has an inadequate mastery of a concept may nonetheless be attributed beliefs with contents in which that concept figures. So the subject in the actual community of English speakers may be credited with beliefs about arthritis. There is another lesson, also noted by Burge, which is more important for our purposes. This is that the difference between the two subjects cannot be explained in terms of their dispositions to use the term "arthritis". As Burge suggests it is to be explained rather in terms of differences in their respective social environments. The social environments matter because they are the repository of the norms or standards by which conceptual mastery is judged. Burge's first speaker inhabits the actual community of English speakers for which arthritis is an inflammation of the joints. The other, in the counterfactual circumstance, inhabits a community in which the term "arthritis" correctly applies to various rheumatoid ailments and not just to inflammation of the joints. It is only be reference to the appropriate norms to which members of the different communities are responsible that one speaker comes out as having some degree of mastery of the concept of arthritis while the other does not.

Whereas in Burge's discussion it is explicit that the dispositions of the two speakers are conceived in non-intentional terms, the dispositions which figure in Peacocke's possession conditions are conceived in intentional terms. In particular, the dispositions mentioned in the possession conditions for a concept C are dispositions involving attitudes to contents containing C. Moreover, in response to Burge's example, Peacocke expressly distinguishes between the conditions for possession (full mastery) of a concept and conditions for correct attribution of a concept (pp. 27-33). He is thus able to accommodate the view that the concept of arthritis may be correctly attributed to Burge's first speaker though that speaker fails to satisfy the conditions for full mastery of the concept, and he can accept as a consequence of this that whether a speaker may be correctly attributed a concept does not turn just on the person's dispositions to use words. My worry, however, concerns whether Peacocke can accommodate the point about normativity which emerges from Burge's discussion. If whether a person counts as having some degree of mastery of a concept is not fixed by the non-intentionally characterized dispositions which figure in Burge's discussion, how can it be fixed by the dispositions which figure in Peacockian possession conditions on the assumption that these are non-normative?

It should be stressed that Peacocke does not attempt to reduce normative truths concerning concepts to non-normative truths. The reconciliation with naturalism is to be effected not by reduction but with the help of the idea that the normative truths supervene on non-normative truths. The problem to which I am drawing attention remains. For the normative truths about a concept are supposed to supervene on non-normative truths as to what counts as possessing the concept. The worry is that such truths cannot be truths as to what counts as possessing the concept.

The foregoing line of thought, even if correct, need not require any adjustment to the general framework of possession conditions. It does suggest that possession conditions for concepts will not be non-normative. There is reason, in any case, to think that Peacockian possession conditions are not in fact non-normative since (i) they involve attributions to thinkers of attitudes to contents, (ii) these attitudes clearly require a grasp of concepts, and (iii) grasp of concepts, even if falling short of full possession, surely has a normative dimension. This being so, the reconciliation with naturalism, if still on the cards, will have to be more subtle.

4. The future of the project

Peacocke's project could developed on two broad fronts. The first would look in more detail at the concepts we actually possess and consider their possession conditions and determination theories. Along this front one would have to address the tricky question whether the treatment applied to and can be plausibly extended to other logical concepts, and whether determinate possession conditions could be given for family resemblance concepts and theoretical concepts in science. On the second front are more general philosophical concerns. On this front scepticism about content would need to be tackled head-on, as would the question whether the apparatus of possession conditions and determination theories can illuminate disputes between semantic anti-realists and realists. A crucial issue here concerns whether determination theories really justify our practices and, in any case, what is the source of the authority offaccounts of semantic value. A somewhat less fashionable topic, though no less worth tackling, concerns the wider implications of the framework for the theory of knowledge. Any approach which seeks to explain what counts as good reasons for judging contents in terms of possession conditions and associated determination theories for the relevant concepts is going to have to address, among other things, very difficult problems about non-deductive inference.(4)

(1)This apparatus which figures in Peacocke 1983 is superseded in ch. 3 of the work now under review.

(2)Note however that sometimes possession conditions are expressed not in terms of what thinkers are disposed to judge under certain conditions but in terms of what they are willing to judge under certain conditions. See pp. 108ff.

(3)It is striking that Peacocke's discussion of Kripke does not, so far as I can see, tackle this point head-on.

(4)Peacocke is well aware of the significance of the framework for issues in the theory of knowledge. See, for example, Peacocke (1992).


Burge, T. 1979: "Individualism and the Mental", in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. IV, Peter A. French, Theodore E. Ueling, Jr., and Howard K. Wettstein (eds.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 73-121.

Peacocke, C. 1983: Sense and Content. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Peacocke, C. 1987: "Understanding the Logical Constants: A Realist's Account". Proceedings of the British Academy, 73, pp. 153-199.

Peacocke, C. 1992: "Sense and Justification". Mind, 101, pp. 793-816.
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Author:Millar, Alan
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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